FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
WHILE this battle, to look at it now, is only important to the actors in it, and not even to them when compared with others they were afterwards engaged in, involving much heavier losses, nevertheless the people throughout the North hailed it with almost unbounded joy, as it appeared to mark a turning-point in the tide of affairs. Failure to commence active operations on the Potomac, defeat at Big Bethel and Ball's Bluff, with the mismanagement too plainly apparent that could hardly be avoided at this early period of the contest, had rendered the people greatly dissatisfied with the operations and the handling of the army, the results, in their opinion, not at all commensurate with the great efforts put forth by the government, and the loss sustained in blood and treasure by the people. This victory was something tangible, and revived their spirits at once, General Shields and his command being honored accordingly.
The next morning the brigade took up the pursuit, following up the valley the cavalry of the enemy covering the retreat. The men, however, needed a rest after the hard service of the week past. The regiment encamped within about three miles of Strasburg, the cavalry of the enemy being quite active, shielding the movements of the infantry. At the bridge crossing Cedar Creek, before mentioned, a friend of the writer's, W. R-n, a young man from Wheeling, belonging to one of the enemy's Virginia regiments (Twenty-seventh, probably), was mortally wounded by a shell, and died in a house just beyond. This young man had two brothers in Company A, of the First, and two other brothers in other commands in the Union army. Cases of like character were of frequent occurrence in Virginia commands during the war. The next day the advance was continued. All along the roads were evidences of the great loss sustained by the enemy at the battle of the 23d, wounded men and material being abandoned to the pursuers. This night the regiment bivouacked one mile south of Strasburg. Remained encamped here until the 1st of April, under orders to be in readiness to march at once. The regiment at this time was in support of the artillery, which was engaged with the enemy at every opportunity, keeping him on the move all the time. Bivouacked one mile north of Edenburg. The skirmishing with the enemy continued until the 4th, he falling back all the time, and while it made the men rather uncomfortable, did but little damage. When the Union guns opened on them his guns usually took a position farther back.
The command crossed the Shenandoah River (Daughter of the Stars) near this point, attracting the attention of the people living in the vicinity. Among the number attracted to the spot was an elderly woman, draped in a sort or gray homespun gown, with apparently little else to make up her costume, industriously smoking a corn-cob pipe, and no doubt drawing much comfort therefrom. Was quite interested in seeing the men crossing the stream. One of the First Virginia Cavalry passing at the time, to the disgust of the owner of the pipe, accosted her, "Hallo, aunty! How does your meerschaum color?" deprived her of further interest in the proceedings. Remained at this camp until the 10th. On the 9th news was received of the capture of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River. Great rejoicing followed this substantial victory. News also had been received of the battle at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee; but it was not known whether it was a victory or a repulse, whether to exult or feel sad. Such was the uncertainty regarding the intelligence received that the men began to regard the newspaper reports as rather unreliable and the "intelligent contraband" as a myth, hence swallowed the news with a mixture of doubt.
The men of the command fully realized at this time that they were in the enemy's territory. Go where the soldier might not a smile greeted him, or even a pleased look, - every man, woman, and child was an enemy. Every movement, the number of men, and the apparent intention of the Union commander were carefully and promptly reported to the enemy. These self-constituted spies were of the greatest value to General Jackson, while, on the other hand, any attempt on the part of the Unionists to extract information was met by sealed lips, pretended ignorance, or lies. The enemy's forces were an unknown quantity. The Union scouts were waylaid, shot, or captured by men who, probably, the next day were employed in some peaceable pursuit on the farm or in the village. The result, necessarily, being an entire absence of reliable information, - a groping in the dark generally as to the force of the enemy at any given time, the probability of his being reinforced, or of his movements. An entire regiment was required for picket duty.
On the 12th General Shields reviewed the division. This was General Shields's first appearance since the battle near Winchester, and he received a cordial reception from the officers and men. On the following day the regiment received two months' pay, after which there was inspection and orders were received to prepare to march. On the 17th marched at two A.M. Cannonading just in front, the brigade prepared for a fight. The enemy, covered by his cavalry as usual, fell back slowly as before, not attempting a stand. Bivouacked one mile north of New Market. On the 19th, at this place, the men received their knapsacks, forwarded by the wagons from Winchester, and two days thereafter were rejoiced at the appearance of the teams with the tents, etc., the latter being pitched on the hill-side not far from the Staunton pike. This was living once more.
The men now began to feel that they were a long way from home, at the same time felt that they were abundantly able to take care of themselves.
On the 26th the regiment hailed with delight the appearance of Colonel Thoburn, who had just rejoined the command, though yet suffering from his wound. Next day struck tents and marched with knapsacks slung to a point three miles south of New Market, where the regiment again encamped. The brigade was here inspected by Colonel E. B. Tyler commanding. On the 30th the regiment was again mustered for pay, and marched at three P.M., arriving at Columbia bridge at nine P.M. This bridge is in Page County, and is an important crossing of the Shenandoah River, much used by the enemy in his operations. This river's general direction is north, and the main stream is formed by the junction of two branches not far from Front Royal. The western branch is the one flowing from the direction of Staunton, taking its rise in the mountains west of that town. On the road up the valley this branch is first seen near the town of Wooostock. The other branch (eastern) takes its rise in the Blue Ridge, passing through Page County, and is separated from the first-mentioned branch by the Massanutten Mountain. The camp of the regiment at the Columbia bridge was on the latter branch. The entire length of the river from its source to its entrance into the Potomac River at Harper's Ferry is probably one hundred miles, and about fifty from the junction of its two largest tributaries. Some men who have campaigned in both valleys appear to be ignorant of the fact that there are two branches of this river. The camping-ground was on the eastern, or right, bank of the river, in what is locally known as the Luray Valley. The face of the country had materially changed in appearance on the last day's march, - more woods and underbrush and rough surface generally; the soil had changed to a sandy nature, unlike the rich limestone loam of the other valley. The following day the tents were pitched on a rolling piece of ground well suited to the purpose. The Thirteenth Indiana and Thirty-ninth Illinois Regiments joined there. May 3 and 4 three companies of the regiment were sent on a scout along the river. All was quiet was the report. The following day the regiment left camp at one A.M., and marched up the river about eight miles; found and drove in the enemy's pickets. A force succeeded in getting on the flank of the regiment in the effort made to get in the rear. The regiment fell back skirmishing, sustaining a small loss, but by the movement avoided a trap laid for its capture; without further loss camp was regained. On the 7th again moved up the river about five miles and developed a force in front. The enemy, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, was in strong numbers but a few hundred yards to the right of the line of march, the movements of the First being screened from observation of the main body by the rising ground between. Passing on, the regiment marched along the entire front of the enemy, consisting, as was afterwards learned, of an entire division. When the colonel was informed of the critical position his men were in he at once called a halt, and satisfying himself of the truth of the report, fell back at once in good order. This manoeuvre in the face of the enemy was very skillfully ordered and conducted. And the surprise is that the enemy was so slow in taking advantage of the temerity, or blunder, shown in this reconnoissance, as an advance of his left would have cut off retreat, compelling the surrender or sacrifice of the command. Colonel Thoburn deserves great credit for the skill shown on this occasion in withdrawing from this dangerous neighborhood. The Thirteenth Indiana was not so fortunate, as, disregarding the report of the officers of the First respecting this force in the front, a reconnoissance by that regiment resulted in its being expelled to beat a hurried retreat, losing a number of men, and some of them only making their escape by ridding themselves of their arms, - the whole regiment making a very narrow escape, and the colonel becoming convinced that the enemy was in strong force in the neighborhood. Remained in this camp until the 12th, having in the mean time turned over the Sibley tents to the quartermaster's department to be transported to the rear for storage at some post or depot for use in winter.
The men were now stripped to light marching condition, the sky being the roof and the earth their bed until the receipt of the so-called "dog tents," being a piece of very light cotton duck about two yards long and one wide, buttoning at the top, thus forming the tent. Each man carried his piece, and when two joined together, would form a shelter intended to accommodate the two, and if three joined, to accommodate the three. These tents were long enough to allow the feet of a tall man to project beyond the cover, to his great annoyance, as may be supposed. These tents were only a slight improvement on the sky covering, and the inventor of them was certainly an enemy to his fellow-men and delighted in torture.
It is to this day an unsolved problem with the men what this advance to the upper waters of the Shenandoah was expected to accomplish. It is possible, however, that the officers knew, but as this is written from the men's stand-point, it may be safely asserted that after all the years of reflection and inquiry since that time the question has not been settled satisfactorily to them. It may be stated here that there was sufficient intelligence among the men to put what they saw and heard together and to form their own conclusions; often correct though based on very limited information. The design was to get into Richmond by the back-door, thinking, it may be, that Johnston and Lee were so carefully guarding the front entrance that the back might be left unprotected. The idea, if ever entertained, as has been shown, was a mistaken one, and is only advanced for the purpose of adding to the possibilities by way of accounting for the movement. What became of the First Brigade was not known to the men, neither is it known now. Suppose, however, it was within supporting distance. At best it was a small body far advanced into the enemy's territory, distant from supplies, and with hardly the possibility remaining of being timely reinforced in case of meeting a superior force, and no way to retire but by the road entered. It was probably fortunate that there was a considerable rise in the river at this time, which rendered the usual fording places next to impassable to infantry. No doubt the bridge approaches were strongly guarded. Had it been generally known that General Ewell with a strong division was in front, which was actually the case, the command would hardly have rested so easy. It must be concluded, in the light of all the facts, that this was simply a reconnoissance. This being the case, it was entirely successful, for the enemy was found in such strength that it was deemed wise to let him alone. If it was a diversion to draw off a portion of the enemy defending Richmond, it was successful to the extent stated.